A number of the world’s religions have made the cultivation of goodness their primary goal, which—for a lack of another word—is good. Goodness is both a lofty and worthy ideal. Who wouldn’t want to be able to display more empathy, kindness, love, altruism, and compassion?
Having said that, there are two very different ways to achieve the goal of becoming a better person that have to do with strong emotions of attraction and repulsion. We call this the attraction-repulsion principle.
To understand the dynamics, it is important to realize that goodness cannot exist in a vacuum since it is a dualistic concept. For goodness to exist there has to exist something other than goodness. This means that when we are attracted by what we perceive as good, we are naturally repulsed by the opposite. The stronger our attraction, the stronger the repulsion can become.
Attraction Automatically Generates Repulsion
One approach to cultivating goodness focuses on the beneficial elements of changing one’s behavior; the other focuses on the detrimental aspects of the opposite behavior. One embraces on the sun while the other tries to eliminate the shadow.
“Focus on the sun! The shadow can’t be eliminated!” one could exclaim.
Sure. It would probably be better if we could just focus on the positive aspects of goodness and cultivate niceties without accruing any dislike for their opposites, but it is harder than you think—near impossible I would say.
Changing Your Diet
Have your ever tried to change your diet? If yes, have you noticed that the more you are attracted to healthy foods, the more unhealthy foods disgust you? It’s like a rubber band, the stronger the attraction becomes, the stronger your repulsion.
If people are, for example, moderately attracted to healthy foods, then they are moderately repulsed by unhealthy foods. But, once people become “health nuts”—affectionately called so by others who don’t share their strong attraction (wink, wink, nudge, nudge)—they have to work on not condemning all those who have the occasional candy bar, soda, or fast-food meal; or they may realize that they are continually railing against sugar- and processed food industries as evil.
I use food to illustrate my point here, because everyone understands that. At the same time, the example is true of all other persistent efforts to cultivate goodness. One must be vigilant not to fall prey to continual condemnation and repulsion. A mood can turn on a dime. You can be perfectly focused on increasing ‘good’ behavior one moment and lost in a fit of rage over an opposite behavior the next.
Repulsed by Political Affiliation
We see this urge clearly in politics, where people are willing to accuse each other of malevolence just because of differing political ideologies. All the while, both sides consider themselves virtuous. The stronger the attraction to the ideology is, the stronger the repulsion of the opposite becomes.
Repulsion in Religion
Most prominently, however, we see this proclivity in religion. And in religion, we have another force to contend with. It is not just that a single person has chosen this or that behavior for him or herself, it is that, through a combination of religious scripture and creeds issued by communities of believers, behaviors have been chosen for those who follow that religion. They've been told, in no uncertain terms, what is good and what is evil.
Some of those distinctions don’t age very well. Rabbi Jonathan Henry Sacks recently pointed out that each of the world’s religions includes “potential scriptural minefields” that need to be weeded out, as many religious scriptures include condemnation of women, homosexuality, certain eating habits, types of clothing, and much more. Some of these and other offenses were (and in some place are) even punishable by death, which shows an exceptionally strong repulsion.
No matter how we play this game, strong repulsion always serves as a counteracting force to any strong attraction. If I love this, then I am likely to hate that. It is only with the practice of moderating behaviors (several of which are described in detail in our programs) that anyone can counteract this natural tendency. People must continually remind themselves that even though they consider their chosen path to be good, it is not necessary to offer a blanket condemnation of the opposite without rigorous investigation and contemplation.
Helen Keller described the human fascination with repulsion well when she said: “It is wonderful how much time good people spend fighting the devil. If they would only expend the same amount of energy loving their fellow men, the devil would die in his own tracks of ennui.”
So, as we plod our path towards increased compassion, love, empathy, and altruism, we must never forget that along with strong attraction comes strong repulsion, and, that although sometimes appropriate, it can subvert positive efforts and create the exact opposite of what we were aiming for.
Our love for one thing can, if we are not careful, create a hate for another.
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Bridge Building and Social Harmony
We are an educational and social good interfaith organization. We envision a world where people have access to strategies, methods and ideas that promote social harmony and enable bridge building across divides. To us, interfaith means the continual improvement of interrelations between people who strongly believe in different worldviews.
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Founded in 2018
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